Back then I spent my days washing greasy pots and pans in a restaurant kitchen and my nights drinking myself to sleep. Each morning I’d stagger to work hung over to find burnt, crusty pans stacked to the ceiling. Head throbbing, I’d vow never to take another drink, but by noon I’d feel well enough to have a beer; by seven I’d be returning from the liquor store with three six-packs and a pint of Jack Daniels.
Then Randy, a four-hundred-pound, grinning hulk of a man, was hired. He’d come from an extended stay at the local rehab and made no secret of it, which irked me. I poked fun at him and his Alcoholics Anonymous “cult,” with its childish belief in God, but he never took offense and was always kind. I figured he wanted to sleep with me.
Then he started soaking my pots and pans before I got to work, so that they’d be easier for me to clean. He even seemed happy to do it and never asked for anything in return. Now I felt sure this Jesus freak was messing with my head.
I kept on drinking, and Randy kept on soaking my pans. And we started talking: about life, and about drinking. I decided to prove to him that I could quit without anyone’s help.
After a month of abstinence, I celebrated with a drink, and then another, and another. At the end of the night I blacked out behind the wheel and almost killed myself. I’d taken my best shot at quitting and failed. I couldn’t do it on my own. So I knocked on Randy’s door and asked if he’d take me to an AA meeting. It was both the hardest and the easiest thing I’ve ever done.
Jersey City, New Jersey
In the summer of 1974, when I was twenty-six, I moved from Colorado to Florida to live with my parents. I was divorced and broke, with a five-year-old son. My judgmental parents made my life miserable and frequently reminded me that they were sacrificing their summer to help us. Mother baby-sat while I worked. She washed my son’s mouth out with soap daily and enumerated his many crimes for me as soon as I got home.
I had originally planned to stay for a year, but after the first week I made a new plan: I would return to Colorado as soon as I could save enough money for the trip.
One night someone threw a brick through the rear window of my Honda, filling the back seat with broken glass. My insurance company sent me to a Honda dealership fifty miles away to have it replaced. There I talked to a salesman named Frankie: graying hair, stocky build, silk shirt with the top button undone to reveal a thick gold chain. I explained about my window, and how I needed to get it fixed before I could go home to Colorado. Frankie motioned for me to follow him.
At the parts department, the clerk told Frankie that it took three months to get a rear window from the factory in Japan.
“I want one tomorrow,” Frankie said.
Two days later I dropped off my car to have the new window installed, and Frankie gave me a ride to work in his big white Cadillac with the license plate that read, Frankie. He tapped the leather steering wheel with his diamond rings and talked fast. I was nervous about his intentions until he told me his mother had recently come to live with him. I told him about my divorce, my parents’ sacrifice, and my son getting his mouth washed out with soap. Frankie shook his head.
That afternoon my car was ready as promised, except for a rubber seal the factory still needed to send. I was set to leave for Colorado in two weeks.
When I returned to the dealership for the seal, Frankie pointed to my front bumper. “What’s this?” he asked. I told him I’d rear-ended a car at a stop sign. He popped open the hood and showed me that the fan had hit the radiator, damaging it. Driving from Miami to Colorado would cause the radiator to blow. I needed a new one.
The long, hot summer with my parents caught up with me, and I burst into tears. “I can’t afford a new radiator!” I cried.
“No,” he said, “but I can.” He put his car key in my hand. “See you tomorrow afternoon.”
As I got into his Cadillac, he yelled, “Don’t hit anything!”
“What does he want in return?” my parents asked at dinner that night. “Nobody helps someone out like that unless they want something.”
The next day, when I got to the dealership, my car wasn’t quite ready: Frankie was having them give it a complete tune-up. While we waited, he took me across the street for coffee. Here it comes, I thought. He reached across the table and held my hand. My chest tightened.
“I got a girl like you,” Frankie said. “Ran away right after her mother and I divorced ten years ago. I hired detectives, drove all over the country looking for her. I like to think somebody’s watching out for her.”
On the way back to my car, Frankie slipped me a hundred-dollar bill and his business card. “You need help, you call me.” As I got behind the wheel, he asked, “You didn’t hit anything with my Caddy, did you?” I shook my head. He smiled and squeezed my shoulder. “Good girl.”
I was nine years old when my parents divorced and my father moved to another country with a much younger woman. My mother, just turning forty and clutching at her rapidly diminishing self-esteem, was left to bring up four children alone.
My mother had never known her own father and had been abandoned by her mother at the age of six. Now she set out to “find herself” (this was the seventies), returning to school, seeing a therapist, and taking a job outside the home. She also confirmed her attractiveness by attending singles dances. Tall and willowy, she attracted many men, but brought home only those who were her intellectual inferior. A procession of losers, roughnecks, and philandering loudmouths came into our lives. Most were loathsome and should never have been invited into a house with three young girls in it.
To escape, I began to wander the neighborhood. I was drawn to a brick farmhouse — an anomaly in our suburb — with a fenced-in pen where a cocker spaniel nursed five golden puppies: eyes barely open, bellies round with mother’s milk. Their bottoms wiggled when I approached.
The house and dogs belonged to Mr. Grant, who was nearly ninety. I’d stop by on my way home from school to see the pups, thrilled by their growing attachment to me, and often stay past dark, talking with Mr. Grant. He’d lie on the sofa, and I’d listen to stories of his childhood in Scotland and look at photos of his ancestral home, a dilapidated stone castle. I enjoyed his attention and looked forward to his greeting each day: “Ah, you’re here. I’d thought you’d run off and gotten married.”
One afternoon, while running shoeless in Mr. Grant’s yard, I stepped on a nail protruding from a piece of wood. Incredulously, I examined the wood dangling from my foot, then limped into the house. Seeing my ashen face, Mr. Grant rose from the sofa and, with one confident motion, pulled the nail out.
He gently bound my foot in a towel and, once the bleeding had been staunched, applied peroxide and wrapped a bandage expertly around the wound.
That small, simple gesture had a lasting impact. It taught me what it felt like to have a man be kind and nurturing. I wish my mother could have learned the same lesson when she was a girl.
I became a nurse because I wanted to help people. My first job was in a busy rural emergency room. Methamphetamine abuse, unemployment, and poverty were rampant in the area, and I was overwhelmed during my twelve-hour shifts. Some patients were critically ill or injured, but most had come there because they had no other access to medical care. They’d often wait more than four hours to be seen, their anger building. I became the target of their rage.
One night a mother brought in her five-year-old son; he’d gotten sand in his eyes and needed to have them irrigated. We had to sedate him for the procedure, so I asked one of my co-workers to hold him still while I gave him a shot of Demerol. The co-worker was African American, and the boy started shouting, “You motherfucking niggers, I hate you! Fuck you all!” His mother stared at us complacently, not saying a word.
Throughout the procedure we were bombarded with insults and obscenities no five-year-old should know. I hid my tears, embarrassed because someone might think a small boy calling us names had gotten to me.
Over time my sadness turned into anger. I responded to cruel words with cruel words of my own. I was rough when physically restraining those who were high or mentally ill. I made tasteless jokes while resuscitating patients. I didn’t allow families to come back to the patient area and be with their loved ones. My immaturity and self-importance had eclipsed my compassion and desire to help.
After working there for five years, I moved to a different hospital, where I now have fewer patients. I look back with regret, and hope that if I’m ever put in that situation again, I will handle it differently.
The day after my high-school graduation in 1963, I left an abusive foster home and ended up in Long Beach, California, far from the small town where I’d spent my childhood. A Catholic-run thrift store hired me to gather hangers for a dollar an hour. I desperately needed a better-paying job, so I hit the pavement wearing my one good outfit and pink high heels. I took tests and filled out endless applications, but no one would take the risk of hiring a skinny teenager with no work experience.
Then I answered an ad in the paper for a file-clerk position. The interviewer, Miss Grannis, gave me hope. She didn’t say I was too young or too inexperienced. Instead she said, “Call me in a couple of days.”
I called the next day, and the next, and the next, begging for the job until I wore her down. “Be here at one o’clock today, and don’t be late,” she finally said. I ran from the thrift store to my rented room to change clothes. I had seventy-five cents to my name, enough for three bus rides.
My adrenaline pumped as I hurried to the bus stop. I waited while several buses passed, but the Number 10 did not arrive. At 12:30 my anxiety turned to panic, and I raised my hand to hail a cab, just as I’d seen people do in the movies. I’d never been in a taxi before. When one stopped, I jumped in. “Where to?” the driver asked. I gave him the address and said, “Take me as close as you can for fifty cents,” thinking I’d keep one quarter for the bus ride home.
“You can’t go anywhere for fifty cents,” he said, staring at me in the rearview mirror.
Near tears, I blurted out my story about the job, how badly I needed it, and how I had to be there by one o’clock, or I wouldn’t get it. I offered him the whole seventy-five cents.
“Keep your money,” he said, speeding away from the curb. I arrived in time to get my first real job, with my coins still in my sweaty hand. The cabby wished me luck and waved as I walked to the door.
I worked hard filing invoices and answering the phones. Miss Grannis taught me a lot about manners and grammar and how to dress properly, things you often don’t learn in foster homes. It’s too late to thank both the taxi driver and Miss Grannis for their help, but I’ll never forget either of them. They were the first of many people willing to help a scared kid become what I am now: a retired psychotherapist who has tried to help as many people as possible reach their potential, no matter what the odds.
The first time Willy called, he’d been kicked out of his apartment for disturbing the neighbors and not paying the rent. I’d known Willy only a month, but he was a likable guy: balding, forty-something, and suffering from bipolar disorder and the early stages of multiple sclerosis. I drove him around to food banks and shelters and the community job office. From the way the social workers talked, I suspected Willy had been in similar jams before.
Five days later Willy called again. He’d been staying with his mother at a community for seniors only, sneaking in and out, but he’d gotten caught, and now she was making him leave. I stored his belongings at my apartment, then drove him to a shelter, half regretting my decision to help him. I didn’t need anyone else’s problems to worry about, and I was beginning to think that I’d adopted Willy’s.
The next day he called to tell me he’d been kicked out of the shelter because of a dispute with another resident. It couldn’t all be bad luck, I thought.
Willy got a job at a junkyard, where they let him live in the storage shed. About that time, my car died. Willy said he could fix it, so I had it towed to the junkyard. He seemed positive and energetic, and said he’d been taking his medication. I brought him some food and an aloe vera plant for the spider bites he got sleeping in the shed. He said he’d have my car running in two weeks.
Two months later my car still wasn’t fixed. Willy talked as if it was only a few hours away from completion, but he didn’t have time to work on it.
When he finally returned the car to me, it ran rough. I gave it away and got another. I was done with Willy. Giving away my car was my symbolic release from him and his problems.
Three days later Willy called. He’d been fired and wanted to know if I had some extra food I could spare.
I’d been getting groceries from the food bank myself, because I was still paying off my new used car. But I glanced around at my relatively clean apartment and thought of the last time I’d seen Willy. He hadn’t bathed in weeks and looked as if he were living in a hole. I started filling a bag with groceries for him.
St. Petersburg, Florida
As a child, I always wanted to put coins in the cups or hands of the beggars we passed on the street. “You can’t give money to every homeless person,” my mother said.
At thirteen I took a trip to India, where people were literally dying in the streets and homeless children swarmed around us.
In high school I joined community-service organizations and helped with soup kitchens, clothing drives, and job-training programs. But despite our efforts, the people we helped remained on the streets.
I became politically active, believing that it was the social structure that kept people down, regardless of the training or clothes they were given. But the activists I looked to for guidance seemed as lost as I was.
In college I set my sights on a career in healthcare. No other area of service seemed as black-and-white as this: if someone is hurt, you heal them. Then, as a premed student, I volunteered to give anonymous HIV tests at a needle exchange. I found that most medical advice is ignored.
I thought back on my trip to India and decided to go where people needed help the most: underdeveloped countries. I went to Nicaragua and worked as a nurse’s assistant in a rural clinic. I had little to do, because few people wanted to travel all day to the clinic on the off chance the doctor would be there. (She didn’t keep regular hours.)
I saw other ways in which resources were poorly used. For example, a philanthropist gave money to build an auditorium for a school that had no functioning latrines. To learn how to organize people and use skills and materials efficiently, I decided to get my master’s degree in public health.
I now have my master’s but, like many of my peers, cannot find a job in my field. I have given up hope of affecting change on a large scale. Still, I often ask myself how I can attack the causes of human suffering at the root, or at least help alleviate one person’s pain.
The other day I was pondering my dilemma when I walked past a homeless man in a wheelchair.
“Hey, pretty lady,” he said, “you got a dollar? I just want something to eat.”
“Sorry,” I replied.
Two blocks later I realized I’d missed my chance.
San Francisco, California
Fifteen years ago, Verita moved in next door to me. At eighty, she was beginning a new life in a new place. I was a newly divorced single mother. Verita had always lived life on her own terms, and I was just learning how.
Verita had come to my town to be near her only remaining sister. When the sister died shortly after Verita’s arrival, I became her surrogate family. We were both decorative painters and interior designers, and we talked endlessly over coffee and wine about travel, work, and current events.
I remarried, with Verita’s blessing. (She said if I didn’t marry him, she would.) As the years passed and her health failed, I became more involved in her life, driving her places and helping with chores. Verita had always been self-sufficient and had trouble asking for help. I tried to anticipate her needs so she wouldn’t have to ask. When her savings ran out, my husband and I purchased her home and let her stay there rent-free. I even took care of her bills. (She never knew that her heart medications cost more each month than she received in Social Security.)
A fall put Verita in the hospital, and she never regained enough strength to live on her own again. I arranged for a nursing home, breaking my promise never to put her in “one of those places.”
After two weeks in the home, Verita asked me what would happen if she stopped taking her medications. I knew, but let the visiting hospice nurse explain it to her: essentially she would “drown” from fluid in her lungs. Verita made the decision to stop taking her pills that day.
The nurses were required by law to offer medications at the prescribed time — in this case, every three hours — and each time, they had to state the consequences of refusing the meds. Verita was so distressed by this that she grabbed me and said, “You’ve got to help me.” It was the first time she’d ever directly asked for my help. I did what I could to get the nurses to make an exception, but it was no use.
Verita died three days later, on July 4, Independence Day.
Hobbs, New Mexico
My second-grade teacher steers me into the coat room. “You’ve changed,” she says.
I catch my reflection in the window glass: a lumpy pillow standing upright. I want to step inside my teacher’s skirt and disappear.
“Your hair isn’t brushed; you’ve worn the same stained pants all week. Whenever I look up, your head is on your desk. Did something happen at home?”
“I’m fine,” I say. “Nothing’s happening at home.”
My teacher doesn’t say anything.
“My grandfather came to live with us. All the way from the Philippines.”
I’m only eight years old, but I know that if I tell, my grandfather will go to prison. Then I won’t be there to tell him good morning and make sure he’s had his coffee. I won’t be there to praise him and count the wooden spoons he carves.
I understand the price I must pay to keep my family intact. It doesn’t seem like too much. We all do our part: my father goes to work each day, and my mother scrubs the floor and the toilets until her knees are raw. The crucifixes nailed to the walls in every room of the house remind me what true sacrifice is.
“No one is hurting you?” my teacher asks.
I cross my fingers behind my back and shake my head no. My teacher allows me to return to my desk. Hundreds of nights will pass before I will receive another offer of help.
I’d always felt a bond with Mary. We were both intelligent, strong, independent divorced women. But I see now there was something else that drew us together: a mutual disdain for our weaknesses and limitations.
Mary had battled cancer for years before we met. When she asked me to be one of her caregivers, I was glad to help.
I sat with Mary that first day as she wept and confessed that she’d been too ill to cook or clean. The evidence was piled on every surface in her house, collecting in every corner. There was nothing I could do to improve Mary’s physical well-being, but I could clean the gracious home she hadn’t been able to maintain. It took an entire afternoon to clear the living room enough that hospice workers and visitors could sit down.
No one had known until then how bad it had been for her, not even the minister of our small spiritual community. Mary’s pride had made her unable to ask for help.
Now there was no time left for pride. As she slipped away, Mary let go of worldly concerns. She abandoned clothing altogether, not caring who saw her naked. There was no hair on her body except a slight stubble on top of her head. Her breasts had been removed years earlier, and she was slender except for her rounded stomach. She looked like a baby, weak and helpless, stripped bare of all vanity as she released her hold on life.
Mary taught me there is no shame in needing help. The only shame is in refusing to ask.
Robbi Jean Welsh
I am a special-education teacher. My most difficult student, Eric, exhibits obsessive behavior due to autism. Once he is given a schedule, he insists on following it exactly. He begs the staff to repeat the schedule in the exact same words every time. When we don’t, he can become loud and demanding.
Eric also has a hard time with sudden noises. Once, the bell rang in the middle of class, catching him off guard and scaring him. Now he must know exactly when the bell will ring throughout the day, and as each time approaches, he sits at his desk, hands over his ears, looking at the clock.
There are occasions when Eric gets so engrossed in an activity that he forgets about the bell. I see this as a triumph: he is focused on learning rather than his obsession. But Eric gets frustrated and angry, yelling repeatedly, “I missed the bell! I missed the bell!” He then tips a desk, or rips someone’s paper, or pulls someone’s hair. Once, he tore off a student’s glasses and threw them across the room. It sometimes takes several attempts to integrate him safely back into the classroom.
On one particularly trying day, Eric had several outbursts. Toward the end, he raised his hand and called out, “I need help! I need help!” By that point I was too drained to talk to Eric. I let my assistant respond to him.
“Yes, Eric, what do you need help with?” she asked.
Eric stared at her for a moment, then said, “Can you help me be good?”
I’d come to Botswana to try to save young lives, but for three days I avoided the children’s emergency ward, busying myself with coaching other emergency responders instead. On the ward children were dying so quickly no one could keep track. Parents crowded the emergency room, carrying infants with thready pulses wrapped in thick blankets. Eventually I ran out of excuses not to go there. I had to face this room.
The ward was a cacophony of voices and children’s cries. Hooked up to intravenous fluids and oxygen tanks, twenty-two young patients slept on bare mattresses on the floor or in tall chrome cribs, their parents keeping vigil beside them. At each bed I was met by the bewildered stares of distraught parents and listless children. Shame stung my throat. What had made me think I could help these families? I had no medicines for them, no cures. I could not even speak to them in a language they understood. Still, I plodded from patient to patient, forcing myself to witness their suffering.
In a crib in the corner was a tiny bundle: six-week-old Kagiso, delicate, silent, and fierce. Her bright eyes shone beneath a wrinkled brow that made her appear wise beyond her age. Beneath her white swaddling, her thin chest fluttered like a bird’s, far too quickly for a human.
In that moment, I understood that she, like so many others in that room, would die. I understood that all my years of medical training meant nothing to this tiny soul and her anguished mother, nor to the twenty-one other sick children there. I understood that I am privileged. And I felt shame that I had come to, and then forgotten, this understanding so many times in my life.
I gently stroked Kasigo’s forehead. For a moment, her brow relaxed and her breathing slowed. Her young mother smiled at me and said, in English, “Thank you.” Kagiso died the next day.
My grandmother’s house, in a golf-course community on Chicago’s North Shore, was always clean and neat. We came for a short visit every few months, but didn’t stay long, since our family of seven — plus a dog or two — created too much chaos.
Henry and Emma worked for my grandmother. They were the “help,” and the first black people I knew. They were also the only grown-ups I was told to call by their first names. Henry did odd jobs: fixed doorknobs, tinkered with the Buick, put on a white jacket to serve hors d’oeuvres at a dinner party. Ever cheerful, he remembered all our names, calling us “Miss Ann” and “Miss Mary.” We loved Henry.
Emma cooked and cleaned and chatted with our grandmother. I remember her as a bad cook, responsible for the peanut-butter-covered Thanksgiving ham and the marshmallows on the sweet potatoes. She didn’t like me, and when she thought no one was looking, she could be mean.
Once, my parents went on a short trip, and our grandmother sent Emma to our Ohio home to take care of my siblings and me. She and I had a big fight over whether I would eat my dinner.
“I hate liver!” I screamed.
Emma glared as if ready to slap me and said, “You do not hate liver. What don’t you like about it?”
“I don’t like the texture!”
“You don’t even know what that word means.”
“Yes I do!”
“Oh, really?” she said. “What does it mean, Miss Smarty Pants?”
“It means I don’t like the taste!”
“I told you. You don’t know what it means.”
I think Emma didn’t like children, or maybe she just didn’t like me. Perhaps I represented a job she hated. In my grandmother’s household of one, the help were treated the same dismissive way as her grandchildren: sometimes coddled, sometimes ignored, sometimes enjoyed, but never taken seriously.
My father was an FBI agent in Washington, D.C. Every night he’d walk in the front door, scoop me up in his strong arms, put his wide-brimmed hat on my head, and carry me into the kitchen, where we’d both get a kiss from Ma. Then one night in 1951, when I was eight years old, he didn’t come home.
Later I heard the story of what had happened: That afternoon, Dad and his partner had been grabbing a hamburger downtown, a few blocks from the White House, when they heard a bank was being robbed around the corner. They ran over, pistols drawn, just as two robbers came out of the bank shooting.
Dad was shot in the stomach. His partner was hit in his chest and spine. The robbers fled. Dad’s partner called to the people in the bank for help, but they were too terrified to come out. By the time aid finally arrived, Dad was dead. His partner lived, but was paralyzed from the waist down. The bank robbers were later killed in a shootout.
Even after I heard the news, I still watched the front door, sure Dad would appear. I hated him for not coming home.
That was a hard time for my mother, my brother, and me. Our family needed help, but it was the fifties, and counseling wasn’t widely available. So we each dealt with Dad’s death in our own way.
I grew up to be a bank robber. I think I need help.
Nottoway Correctional Center
After completing my Peace Corps work in North Africa, I decided to travel through Greece and Turkey. Friends expressed concern about me, a woman traveling alone in a foreign country. But I’d just been through a breakup and believed I could handle myself without anyone’s help.
On a boat trip around the Greek islands, I met an American professor who was leading his students on a study-abroad program. He showed interest in my work in the Sahara and asked me out to dinner so we could talk more.
After dinner, as we walked in a secluded area on the edge of an ancient walled city, he grabbed me and pulled open my shirt. Suddenly a black Labrador appeared, barking and growling at the professor. The Lab looked like Ebony, my dog back home. He moved between me and the professor, who backed away.
The dog accompanied me back to my hostel and slept with me that night in the courtyard under the stars. In the morning, he licked my hands and walked away.
Brenda Bedford Sampson
I was a mature and fit woman when an accident made me a paraplegic. After coming home from the hospital, I did not leave the house for five months. I couldn’t face the world in a wheelchair, so I observed it through my window. The lovely southern-California winter, warm and clear, turned into foggy spring. My eyes followed the joggers and bikers, and I cried. Not long ago I’d been one of them.
That summer I finally dragged myself out my front door. I chose a weekday morning, when most people were at work. After making sure the road was empty, I started to roll down the path, feeling ashamed, praying nobody would see me.
As I approached the stop sign at the corner, I saw a three-year-old, who was insistent upon pushing her own stroller, and her annoyed mother. When the child’s eyes caught mine, she stopped crying and stared in amazement. I wanted to hide. Then I heard her say, “Look, Mom! That baby is pushing herself.”
My shame melted, replaced by a sense of pride at my independence. The child and I smiled at each other as I pushed my wheelchair and she pushed her stroller side by side through the intersection.
Marina del Rey, California
When my job ended and my partner revealed that he’d gotten another woman pregnant, I moved to the country to sort myself out. Tom, an organic farmer twice my age, had just seen his own relationship crumble. He needed company; I needed cheap rent. We could help each other.
Within a week, I’d stopped grinding my teeth at night. I planted peas, beans, and sunflowers. I noticed the birds and the plants, the changes that take place after a rain. I started helping Tom, who’d been stubbornly wrestling with acres of berries, apples, and vegetables by himself. He cheered me up with stories about his farm, his dogs, his travels. Picking raspberries in the sun, I’d roll up my shirt and bat away his obligatory flirtation. In the evenings I cooked for us, and Tom provided the homemade wine. We sat down to dinner together not out of politeness, but out of mutual need for companionship.
I sometimes attended to chores Tom didn’t notice or didn’t have time to do. When he offered to pay me for my work, I refused on principle. What I really needed — what we both needed — was a relationship where little was asked for and much was given.
Deanna M. Erickson
Growing up in Germany, I was ten when a neighbor gave me a reel-to-reel tape of some Beatles songs. The neighbor, who at fourteen seemed to know everything about the ways of the world, told me that this was the best music ever made. The first song on the tape was “Help!”
I played that tape over and over, trying to decipher the nonsense lyrics of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “I Am the Walrus.” Having just started to learn English, I was sure the Beatles’ songs held the key to a whole new world.
I often misunderstood lyrics. For years I thought “Can’t Buy Me Love” was a sad song about a boy named Bobby who couldn’t find a girlfriend. (“Can’t Bobby Love?”) By the time I realized my error, I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, struggling to fit in as the only foreigner in my high school, and wishing song lyrics were all I misunderstood.
San Francisco, California
It’s a rainy Halloween night in downtown Portland, Oregon. I’m driving down Burnside, a busy crosstown street, past fast-food franchises, apartments, and homeless people. Revelers in costume parade up and down the sidewalk, oblivious to the rain. The car in front of me stops short, and I slam on the brakes to avoid hitting it.
While I’m stopped, a woman runs toward my truck, dodging traffic and waving her arms. She pounds on the passenger window with a big, muddy hand. The other hand is holding up her jeans, which are several sizes too big.
My first thought is to drive away. She’ll probably rob me, or worse. But then I see her desperation, and I lean over and unlock the door. She gets in, smelling of cigarettes and beer, and yells, “Drive! Just drive!”
I do, even though I’m not sure where I’m going. She doesn’t have on shoes or a coat. She’s crying, and snot runs out of her nose in two thick lines. I ask if she’s OK.
“My boyfriend, man, he’s going to beat me up,” she says. “He’s coming after me. I left him in a bar down the street. How could he do this?”
“Are you hurt?” I ask.
She says she isn’t, but she needs to get to a phone to call her daughter, who can come get her.
I turn in to a Kentucky Fried Chicken, where there’s a pay phone in the parking lot. The woman reaches into her pocket and pulls out a wet bill.
“I’ve got a hundred dollars,” she says. “I’ll give you twenty of it. You saved my life.”
I shake my head. “I don’t want your money. Do you have someplace to go? I could —”
“God knows what’s in your heart,” she interrupts me. “He knows. Those others wouldn’t help.”
“They were afraid,” I tell her.
“They were devils. But you, you’re an angel. A good Christian.”
I want to tell her that I’m not a good Christian; that I’m not any kind of Christian at all; that she has scared the hell out of me tonight. Instead I just watch as she climbs out of the truck, one hand still holding up her pants, and walks right past the phone, back toward Burnside, back toward the boyfriend.
I’m twenty years old and starving myself. My mother stands beside my bed, crying. “What have I done?” she says. “Why won’t you just eat?”
I don’t have the energy to explain that I’ve already consumed my allotted calories for the day. I’ve been doing this for almost a year. I weigh ninety-eight pounds.
My father stands in my bedroom doorway, his face in shadow, eyes averted. I’m so desperately hungry I feel as if I’m about to rise out of my body. I panic and reach out to him. “Help me,” I sob.
He doesn’t move. “I wash my hands of you,” he says, and walks away. I swear to myself I will never look to him for help again.
Six years later my brother and I and our significant others visit my father’s house for the holidays. I make supper and help put up the Christmas tree. My mother is in the hospital, dying of cancer. My father couldn’t handle the news at first and tried to kill himself by drinking antifreeze. Since then he has developed a drinking problem. Though he promised to be sober during my visit, he is not. I pour his stash of red wine down the sink. He disappears to the basement. When I go to check on him, he emerges from the dark laundry room and falls toward me, eyes rolling back in his head.
My arms go out instinctively to catch him, and his weight brings me to my knees. I cry for help, believing he’s dying. Someone dials 911. After we lower my father to the floor, I kneel beside him and slap his cheek. “Dad! Dad, stay here! Please don’t die. I love you.” I’m surprised that I care this much.
Suddenly he tries to sit up. “Why’d you call an ambulance?” he asks. “I’m going to have to pay for that.”
He won’t go with the paramedics, who tell me they can’t make him cooperate. They suggest that he’s just drunk and should sleep it off. We help him to the couch, where he falls asleep.
The next morning, back home again, I call my father, and he apologizes and thanks me for helping him. He’s never apologized to me before.
“That’s OK, Dad,” I say. “I love you.”
He tells me he loves me too. Not “Your mother and I love you,” or “Of course we love you,” but “I love you.” Though we’re on the phone, I feel as if he’s looking right at me with his pale blue eyes.
Six days later my father is dead.
Crawford Bay, British Columbia
On a typical weekend, it’s me versus the “honey-do” list — the log of chores my mother needs me to do. After two decades of rheumatoid arthritis and peripheral neuropathy from successful chemotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer, she can no longer write legibly, but she can still bang out a list for me on the typewriter.
I want to shirk my chores like a kid, but I also want to overachieve so she’ll be happy and proud of me. Somehow I manage both.
This weekend I stocked the fridge with meals she loves but has trouble preparing for herself. I reorganized her pill bottles to make taking her medications easier. I changed the shower-curtain liner.
But I didn’t get to the papers on the desk. I didn’t cut the matted fur off her Persian’s chin. And I didn’t stay when the weekend was over.
There are always chores that don’t get done. And the really big ones don’t even make the list — like deciding when it’s time for my mother to give up living alone.
Brooklyn, New York
There’s a man who comes to my door asking for work on a regular basis. He’s about twenty-nine, strong, intelligent — and manipulative. He reminds me of my friend Jerry.
Jerry and I bonded in our youth over drugs, rock music, and literature, and we stayed in touch through the years. One Christmas when I called him, his wife said he didn’t live there any longer. She gave me his new phone number.
Jerry was in a halfway house. “They’re going to send me to prison if I can’t raise $2,300,” he explained. “I’m a junkie.”
I wired him the money the next day.
A compassionate synagogue had hired him to teach the Talmud, but his best friends were still his dealers. Another call came in from Jerry: he needed $600, fast.
“Jerry,” I said, “you’re working me.”
“Oh. OK,” he said. And the phone went dead.
That was two years ago. I still feel guilty.
Now this fellow comes to my door. I can tell he is “working” our middle-class neighborhood. The first time he knocked, I got his story: He was waiting for low-cost housing and sleeping in his car. He just needed to make it through one more week. That was a year ago.
One time I agreed to let him rake my leaves and, feeling generous, overpaid him by twenty dollars. Then I discovered he had piled the leaves in with the recycling, and it took me an hour to sort the mess out. Lately he’s started ringing my doorbell at night, and when I answer, he’s lying prostrate on the porch, asking for food and money.
I’m not the only one whose doorbell he rings.
“When I offered him a bagel with cream cheese,” one neighbor said, “he told me he would prefer a meat sandwich. And then he borrowed — and lost — our lawn mower.”
I’ve been taught you should give without questioning, never expecting anything in return, but I have started to ignore my doorbell. I’ve missed two friends’ visits and a UPS delivery already.
Why do I feel guilty?
My father has never acted much like a father; he seems more like an old friend. I tell him he is immortal. (He’s eighty-nine.) He tells me that his body has become like a car in Cuba: old and in need of spare parts, but well preserved.
My father visits my mother each day at her nursing home and knows the life story of every staff person there. But he doesn’t talk to the “inmates,” as he calls them; they bring him down. He’s a photographer by profession, and his vibrant pictures of the nurses’ children brighten the walls. He sees even the most ordinary human interaction as an opportunity to share his philosophy on life and aging. Visits to the pharmacy are like a cocktail party to him. His last hospital stay, for atrial fibrillation, was a “great adventure.”
I sometimes wonder if I help my father enough. My friends spend more time caring for their aging parents. But it feels as if something precious would be lost if I intruded too much in his life. So I call, but not too frequently. And when the urge to see my father grows strong, I get in my car and drive six hours to his house in Maine. We visit my mother, drink beer, and watch old movies together.
My father still has photography students, and one of them is a young woman. He often takes her picture, sometimes with her clothes on, but usually not. They go skinny-dipping in the pond together on hot days. For now, this is all the help he needs.